BANGUI, Central African Republic: Fresh fighting broke out in the strife-torn Central African Republic on the eve of an announcement on Sunday of the candidates seeking to become the new interim president.
Sectarian violence has gripped the landlocked country after a March 2013 coup launched by the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels, and the UN has warned that the bloodshed could turn into genocide.
As clashes raged unabated Saturday, Save the Children said a grenade attack Friday on a truck convoy carrying Muslims fleeing to the north-west of the country had killed 23 people, including three children.
“It is a sign of the still fraught and highly dangerous situation in the Central African Republic that children and their families have been attacked and killed while trying to evacuate to safety,” said Robert Lankenau from the charity.
The Seleka were disbanded after installing their leader as president in the mainly Christian country.
Some then turned rogue and carried out a string of atrocities including killings, rape and pillage, prompting Christians to form vigilante groups in response, and plunging the country into a vicious cycle of revenge attacks.
“There is some violence nearly everywhere,” an officer with the MISCA African peacekeeping force told Agence France-Presse, pointing to Bouar in the west near the border with Cameroon, the town of Sibut north of Bangui, and Boali to the northwest of the capital.
“People are in a desperate situation and as we get closer to the election it is going to get worse,” added the officer, who requested anonymity.
Some 4,400 African troops and 1,600 French soldiers have been deployed to try to restore order in the impoverished country, but both missions have been calling for back up.
Ahead of an EU meeting on Monday expected to approve the deployment of 500 European soldiers to help secure Bangui’s airport, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Europe could not leave France alone in its bid to restore order in the country.
It is in Europe’s interests to bring peace to the country, because “when instability, displacement and terrorism threaten Africa, the consequences will arrive in Europe,” he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.
Michel Djotodia, who was installed by the Seleka as the first Muslim president in the country, resigned on January 11 under pressure from African leaders after he failed to stem the violence.
The country’s transitional parliament is expected to vote on Monday for a new interim president. With the deadline for filing candidacies passed, the list of contenders is to be published on Sunday.
France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Saturday that French forces would be “extremely vigilant” as the presidential vote takes place.
At least three people were killed in Sibut, a resident told AFP by telephone as under-siege civilians called on the international forces for help.
“I’m putting out a cry of alarm,” said the resident who asked not to be named. “The Seleka movement is reigning like warlords in the city and there is no foreign force to protect us.”
A Catholic Church source said the parish premises came under attack in Sibut. “We tried to contact MISCA and [the French force]Sangaris for quick help, but so far there is no one,” he said.
MISCA told AFP that teams were on their way to the town of about 25,000 people but a peacekeeper said that the force has been flooded with calls for help, all of which cannot be handled.
“Our hotline is jammed [with calls], we try to do what we can but we can’t put a soldier in every house,” he said.